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Who needs reality if you have Photoshop?

by Lerner, Hank on

ks126885One of the newest marketing techniques making the rounds is called “virtual staging.”  According to a recent blog post from NAR,

Virtual staging is where you take an empty room and then digitally enhance it with furniture to make the space more inviting. For example, a stager may digitally add some artwork, chairs, tables and other items to liven up a vacant space, allowing buyers to see the potential of the home. The enhanced photos may then be used on the sales practitioner’s flyers, Web site, MLS and in advertisements for the listing.

In short, rather than bringing a home stager into the home to dress it up with furniture and other items that don’t belong in the home, the listing broker does the same thing electronically for much less expense.

NAR suggests (in that post and in other articles) that practitioners need to be sensitive to claims that virtual staging may be a violation of Article 12 of the Code of Ethics which requires that REALTORS® present a “true picture” in their advertising.  If listing brokers put up virtually staged pictures of a property that never actually existed in that state – using furniture or fixtures that aren’t present in the home and have never been there – is it really a “true picture” of the property?

Personally, adding non-existent digital furniture to a photo of a living room doesn’t cause me a lot of angst, although I can see how it might be misused.  After all, is that really so different from pictures of “live” staging where you move in real furniture that won’t be staying with the house?

But as you think about virtual staging keep in mind that there are a lot of ways to manipulate pictures and some may be far worse than others.

For example, I would get heartburn if a listing broker eliminated negative features from a photograph or materially changed the photograph in a way that misrepresented the existing features of a home.  What would you think of a photograph that digitally turned a gravel driveway into an asphalt driveway or one that magically erased the electrical pole in the backyard and the wires that run over the house?

Obeo has a product called StyleDesigner that is targeted to let buyers change various aspects of property photographs to envision what a home might look like with different paint colors, flooring or counters.  No problem with that use for buyers who want to envision what they might change about a house but I certainly don’t think sellers could get away with Photoshop upgrades in their own listing pictures by dropping in granite counters instead of the existing laminate or hardwood instead of linoleum.

What do you think?  Have you used virtual staging and seen results?  Would you have a problem if you showed up with your buyer to a vacant home that had virtually staged pictures in the MLS?


Code of Ethics Article 12 Staging True picture Virtual staging
Comments (7)


  • Melissa Sieg    October 1, 2009 | 2:05 pm

    Hi Hank – I can also see where it might be abused by the lowly idiot who wants to sell at any cost. However, as long as the virtual staging or enhancement didn’t change aspects of the property itself, I think it’s a great idea. I’ve seen that service advertised somewhere (can’t remember where right now) and will probably check it out. Certainly its easier than paying for a stager or renting actual furniture, etc.

    Reply to Melissa Sieg
  • LInda Walters    October 2, 2009 | 5:25 am

    I would only do that with a disclaimer, such as: “Room settings enhanced to show how the rooms could look” or soemthing like that.

    Reply to LInda Walters
  • Andrew Smith    October 2, 2009 | 6:26 am

    This is going to be another great tool for all of us. Thank you for covering the one major area that could lead to trouble – that is changing some physical aspect of the home. As technology such as photoshop advances and becomes more readily available – so does the potential for abuse. Just the other day as I was reviewing pictures for my most recent listing the thought occurred to me how much better one of the exterior shots would look if I could just take out the phone lines. The day is just around the corner where we’ll be in open houses with our laptops and offering to change color schemes and add or remove furniture. It will be a blast.

    Reply to Andrew Smith
  • Michael    October 4, 2009 | 8:20 pm

    Use a reputable virtual staging company and they wont “drop in granite counter tops” or alter structural elements. That’s not what virtual staging is. It’s the same thing as traditional staging, all they are doing is adding furniture not modifying anything. It was pretty useful for me to help show buyers what each room can be used for and to add some warmth to a vacant home.

    Reply to Michael
  • Michael    October 4, 2009 | 8:21 pm

    I used – they have a great code of ethics about altering things and you can even buy the furniture in real life.

    Reply to Michael
  • John Rainville    March 9, 2018 | 8:11 am

    Hank, any updates on this from NAR? I am seeing many “filtered” photos of interiors and enhanced exteriors–like blue water in lakes a pristine skies.

    Reply to John Rainville
  • Lerner, Hank    March 9, 2018 | 5:43 pm

    Hi John:

    There actually is somewhat of an update, but it’s not all that helpful. For 2018 NAR has tweaked Standard of Practice 12-10 to specify that the use of “images” or “misleading images” could be considered as one of the factors in determining whether a Realtor has presented less than a “true picture” in their advertising. Apparently, agents somewhere were arguing that Article 12 should only apply to words and not images. This clarifies that images can be considered misleading all on their own. But what this doesn’t do is give any insight as to what exactly makes any particular image misleading. So…everything from 9 years ago is still pretty much the same. If an ethics complaint is filed it will ultimately be up to a hearing panel to determine just what crosses the line.

    Reply to Lerner, Hank

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